Beginning Saturday, May 16, Blaine will host the men’s NCAA Division II national championship on Semiahmoo Resort’s Loomis Trail course, the result of a year and a half of work by course pro and director of golf Brett Eaton. Eight man teams from 20 Division II schools from around the county will converge on the course beginning Monday, May 18 for a practice round. That evening, Western Washington University (WWU) graduate Bill Wright will be honored by United States Golf Association (USGA) president Jim Vern on the 50th anniversary of his having won the public links golf championship in 1959. He was the first black golfer to win a national championship.
The schools and individuals that are competing qualified for this national tournament by finishing in the top five at four super-regional tournaments. College teams include North Alabama, Wayne State, University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Lynn College, Northeastern State University, Cal State – Stanislaus, Fayetteville State University, Barry University, Sonoma State, Central Missouri, Concord University, Columbus State, Cal State – San Bernardino, Ferris State, Fairmont State, Georgia College & State University, Indianapolis University, Grand Canyon University and St. Thomas Aquinas.
Admission is free for spectators but fans are asked to remain on the golf carts and at least 15 yards behind the players. The course is much more hilly than one might suspect given its location in the flat sandy prairie south of Blaine. Each hole has at least one water hazard. Eaton also said that teams who come here will find the weather challenging.
“They’ll have to go down a club or two,” said Eaton, a scratch par golfer and 1992 graduate of Meridian high school. But the highlight for local golfers who are members or guests at Semiahmoo will be the chance to play the course on May 23 as it was set up for the tournament. That, and the honor given to Bill Wright, the Jefferson Park golfer from Seattle and WWU graduate who will be honored Monday night May 18.
Wright, one of the first seven inductees into WWU’s Athletics Hall of Fame in 1968, will be the keynote speaker at an evening banquet at Semiahmoo Resort.
The WWU Vikings are hosting the tournament which begins the next morning and runs through Friday, May 22. Wright won the U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship in 1959, becoming the first black golfer to win a United States Golf Association-sponsored national title.
At this point, early in the civil rights era, the bigotry and bias that black Americans had lived with for centuries was just beginning to change. Southern schools would not compete with teams that had black people. Wright, in fact, said that he transferred to WWU from the University of Washington after three semesters because “the basketball coach there at the time [Tippy Dye] didn’t want to have the first black player.” Charlie Sifford, the first black pro on the PGA tour, was a family friend and coach.
At Western Wright developed a great bond with former coach and Dean of Men C.W. “Bill” McDonald. “Dean Mac,” as he was called, supported Wright’s journey to the national tournament, where he won.
He was also scouted by the LA Lakers as a point guard. He joined the PGA tour after graduating and in his first year was invited by Chick Evans, the 1916 U.S. Amateur and U.S. Open champion, to join him and Deane Beman, later the Commissioner of the PGA tour, and an 18-year-old Jack Nicklaus to play some practice rounds.
“[Nicklaus] wasn’t a flag hunter like I was,” said Wright, admitting to an aggressive style of play that sometimes left him needing to make long putts, but that wasn’t much of a problem. At the Public Links championships he birdied 16 out of the 18 holes.
After his years on the tour Wright taught at the Lakes at El Segundo near LAX airport.
His wife, Ceta, is known for having made a hole in one on the first round of golf she ever played, after Wright gave her some lessons. “Not husband-and-wife lessons,” he said, “but pro golf lessons.”
“Some college boys waved her through, and she couldn’t decide which club to use, so she just grabbed a five iron, took a swing, and after one bounce in it went.”